Writing characters substantially smarter than you is tough. Not impossible, mind you — case in point, Aaron Sorkin. Now, I'm not saying Sorkin isn't a bright guy. You don't win an Oscar and a bunch of Emmys for screenwriting without a sharp mind. But on The West Wing he was writing a bunch of characters who were supposed to be Nobel Laureates and Ivy League summa cum laude graduates and leading experts on every topic under the sun and the greatest political geniuses in the country on a weekly basis, none of which Sorkin is, but thanks to the dense, propulsive dialogue I was almost always convinced.
And that brings us to the big problem with Limitless. The movie is about a down-and-out slacker (Bradley Cooper) who comes across a pill called NZT which expands your IQ into, according the film, the four-digit range, allowing you to become fluent in a language or master an instrument or get rich via the stock market within a matter of hours. But his behavior rouses suspicion and he begins making enemies, particularly when some less savory characters discover the truth of NZT and decide they want it for themselves. Relatively generic thriller stuff ensues.
It's a solid enough wish fulfillment fantasy in theory, but to really make such a story pop the writer and director need to be able to sell me on the idea that this pill makes you a goddamn genius beyond our wildest real-world comprehension. And they do! For exactly one scene. The very first scene where Cooper takes the NZT, not believing it's going to do anything, is a delightful little sequence where he starts rattling off obscure legal facts as fast as his mouth can move as not to get evicted, startled and puzzled himself by his brain's new might, quick visual flashbacks showing us the various places all throughout his life he picked up the facts he's now effortlessly reciting and connecting out of the corner of his eye. At this point I was sold and enjoying the hell out of the film.
Unfortunately, that one scene is also the only scene that's clever or well-written in that regard. For the rest of the movie we either come in on the tail end of a conversation where he's confidently quoting some context-free economic or sociopolitical fact that sounds like it was plucked from a textbook, or, more frequently, are told via his nonstop voiceover narration how much he rules and how easy this is for him while we see him doing something like sitting at his computer playing the stock market. I waited patiently for another scene that actually did a good job showing off his superpowered brain through dazzlingly quick-witted conversation, but it never came. Voiceover just lazily stitched in the gaps for the rest of the movie. I don't mind a little narration here and there, but at a certain point it's like holy shit, shut up, dude!
Eventually a gangster who Cooper borrowed some money from gets ahold of his NZT and the movie turns into a more traditional and less interesting chases-and-gunplay thriller with very little personality. This part of the film has not one but multiple scenes where characters take NZT to give them the burst of genius to escape deadly situations, but none of the escapes the writer comes up with are anywhere near clever or impressive enough to convince me that a four-digit IQ was required to pull them off. I will grant that there's a scene near the end of the movie where Cooper has to eat something impressively gross; one of the few moments of genuinely colorful filmmaking and probably the film's best scene after that first NZT high. But a couple of strong scenes does not a strong movie make.
There are other characters besides Bradley Cooper's, including Robert De Niro as a business tycoon guy who Cooper falls in with and Abbie Cornish as Cooper's girlfriend, but I didn't mention any of them because none of them are unique or memorable in the slightest. I doubt I could have told you any of their names by the time I reached my car in the theater parking lot. Anna Friel shows up as a former NZT addict and the movie tries to make it out that she looks like some horrific meth head to show us the dangers of the drug, but all she looks like is an incredibly pretty and healthy girl with no makeup on, so the impact is, uh, diluted.
Limitless ultimately emerges as an incredibly dumb movie about incredibly smart people. I guess you gotta give it the grand prize for irony, if nothing else.
2 Stars out of 5